A decade ago, young Donal Skehan was plying his trade as a pop star, showcasing his dance moves and – “the most mortifying aspect of it” – wearing matching white training outfits to the gym with his Streetwize bandmates.
“I can hold a note, but I look at Take That and think, ‘I was probably the Howard Donald or Jason Orange of the band’. I was good to fill numbers,” says the writer and presenter, who went on to enjoy two Irish No 1 hits with another group, Industry.
His pop career might have been short-lived, but music’s loss was the food world’s gain.
Skehan had already started writing his Good Mood Food blog, chronicling the dishes he prepared when he first moved out of home, and by the age of 23 had landed a book deal and TV presenting gig.
Since then, the Dublin-born foodie’s landed a regular guest presenting gig on BBC One’s Saturday Kitchen, taken up hosting and judging duties on Junior MasterChef, published six cookbooks, and seen his cookery career take off in the US, as a host of Star Kids on Food Network USA.
Now 30, Skehan has relocated to Los Angeles with his Swedish wife Sofie, and is lapping up the local cuisine with his customary enthusiasm and zest.
“We were at the cinema recently and you can put your own butter on your popcorn. Sofie was like, ‘Stop it!’, but I kept ladling it on just because it was free,” exclaims the fresh-faced star.
“This is the land of everything being larger, so if there’s free butter, of course you’re going to start ladling it on. I had to step back and stop myself, though, because it was just ridiculous.”
Popcorn also makes an appearance in Skehan’s latest cookbook, Eat. Live. Go. – Fresh Food Fast. But in keeping with the book’s nutritious ethos, it’s a superfood version, with turmeric, spirulina powder, cayenne pepper and smoked paprika sprinkled over it (and not a butter ladle in sight).
He says the book is all about “prioritising eating well, living a balanced lifestyle and taking time to travel and find inspiration from the world”.
And balance is clearly important to Skehan who, despite indulging in some of the less healthy “tourist food” the US has to offer – and enjoying a sizeable slice of lemon tart when we meet – is slim, tanned and the picture of good health.
“I make green juice and I eat lemon tarts and, for a while, I always felt there was a struggle between the two, but it’s like, ‘Let’s not struggle, let’s just enjoy it when you need it’,” he explains.
“You do have to keep an eye on it and be clever. But invariably, if you’re cooking well and using good ingredients, and there’s an injection of vitamins and some sustenance and nourishment, you’re on the right track.”
Sofie, who Skehan wed in 2015 after nine years together, has recently been trying her hand at presenting with him – despite being “slightly terrified” of being on camera at first. Skehan’s very happy about it, however…
“It’s something we’d love to do more of, because we get to travel together,” he says. “I did 12 European countries last year with Food Network UK and I was all by myself, so to do it with Sofie is really great.”
Things are clearly going brilliantly for the affable personality, but if the writing and presenting jobs dry up, there’s always that pop career – white suits and all – to fall back on.
“If you told me I could go back on stage tomorrow, I would take your hand off,” he confesses.
“It is without a doubt the most incredible experience you will ever have.”
Want to try some of Skehan’s applause-worthy recipes? Here are three from Eat. Live. Go. to make at home…
Orange, feta, coriander and barley salad
250g pearl barley
3-4 large oranges
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
200g feta cheese, crumbled into chunks
Large handful of fresh mint, roughly chopped
Large handful of fresh coriander, roughly chopped
For the dressing:
6tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Zest and juice of one lemon
2 garlic cloves, finely grated
2tbsp pomegranate molasses
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the pearl barley in a pan and cover with water. Place over a medium-high heat and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 50 minutes, or until the grains are tender and all the cooking liquid has been absorbed. Set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, mix all the ingredients for the dressing together in a jam jar with a tight-fitting lid and give it a good shake to combine.
Cut the pomegranate in half and, holding one half cut-side down over a bowl, bash with the back of a wooden spoon to release the seeds. Repeat with the other half.
Use a sharp knife to cut away the peel and white pith from the oranges. Cut the oranges into segments, holding them over a large bowl to catch the juices. Drop the segments into the bowl.
Add the red onion, crumbled feta, pomegranate seeds, cooked pearl barley and herbs. Pour over the dressing and toss gently to combine. Serve at room temperature.
Chicken Katsu Curry
4 chicken breasts (about 150g each)
150ml sunflower oil
1 large free-range egg, beaten
1tbsp soy sauce
100g panko breadcrumbs
25g flour, seasoned
300g sticky rice, cooked, to serve
6 spring onions, thinly sliced, to serve
For the curry sauce:
1tbsp sunflower oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, very finely chopped
1tbsp curry powder
1tsp ground turmeric
1/4tsp chilli powder
1tbsp tomato puree
500ml chicken stock
2tsp rice wine vinegar
1tbsp soy sauce
First, make the sauce. Heat the oil in a pan over a medium heat, add the onion and fry for six minutes before stirring in the garlic and ginger; fry for one to two minutes. Sprinkle in the curry powder, turmeric, chilli powder and tomato puree and stir.
Pour in the chicken stock and bring to a steady simmer. Cook for eight minutes and then mix two tablespoons of the hot liquid with the cornflour in a bowl until it is smooth. Pour this back into the pan along with the rice wine vinegar, honey and soy sauce. Cook for a further three minutes until the sauce has thickened and then blitz until smooth with a hand-held stick blender.
Put the chicken breasts on a chopping board, place a piece of parchment paper on top and, using a rolling pin, bash the breasts to flatten them to a thickness of about 2-3cm.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat. Whisk together the egg and soy sauce in a deep, flat bowl, and put the breadcrumbs and seasoned flour in separate bowls. Remove the parchment paper and dip each breast first in the seasoned flour, then in the egg mixture and finally the panko breadcrumbs.
Fry the crumbed chicken in the oil for five to six minutes until golden brown and cooked all the way through. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate lined with kitchen paper.
Slice the chicken and serve with the cooked sticky rice, spring onions and a generous amount of curry sauce.
Quinoa chocolate cake with avocado frosting
150g cooked quinoa
4 large free-range eggs
150g butter, cubed
1tsp vanilla extract
200g coconut sugar
100g cocoa powder
1tsp baking powder
1/2tsp bicarbonate of soda
For the chocolate avocado frosting:
2 ripe avocados, stoned and flesh scooped out
75g cocoa powder
1tsp espresso powder
75g maple syrup
1tsp vanilla extract
1/2tsp sea salt
Preheat the oven to 180C (160C fan) and grease and line a 20cm spring-form cake tin with parchment paper.
Place the quinoa, eggs, milk, butter and vanilla extract in a food processor and blitz until smooth. Add the coconut sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda and blitz again to combine.
Transfer the mixture to the prepared tin and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before removing from the tin and setting on a wire rack to cool completely.
For the frosting, place the avocados, cocoa powder, espresso powder, maple syrup, vanilla extract and sea salt in a food processor and blitz until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Use a spatula to spread over the top of the cooled cake and dig in.
Eat. Live. Go. – Good Food Fast by Donal Skehan is available now.